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Maybe my parents had kids past their prime. I don’t want to call them lazy, so I’ll chalk it up to old age. There’s 14 years’ difference between my youngest sister and me, and this kid gets away with murder.

Not too long ago, the 11-year-old was quoting the Emma Stone movie “Easy A” word for word. I’m sure at 11 I would not have even been allowed to see a film about a girl who uses perceived sexuality to define her reputation.

One time this kid got a terrible report card. The next day she went to Toys ‘R’ Us and had a sleepover.

In eighth grade, I couldn’t read Harry Potter books because, as Mom put it, “We’re Christian; we don’t believe in black magic.” But this sixth grader has posters of the boy wizard all over her room, as well as enough “Twilight” paraphernalia to open a store. There are many other examples of lax parenting compared to the stringent guidelines I had to abide by, but there is one ugly constant: My parents are overwhelmingly the most negative people I know.

You see, my parents are experts at pointing out what’s wrong with a situation. Praise is much harder to receive. When I proudly brought home a 3.9 grade point average, the response was, “Why’d you get a B in math? You don’t know how to do math? Is there some homework you forgot to turn in?” Meanwhile I’d hear tales of classmates getting money for each grade on a sliding pay scale!

When watching TV, out to dinner, or on a run to Target, the critiques have no end. The post-church debriefing session is especially painful. They don’t reflect on the message on the way home. Oh no. They talk about how Sister So-and-So can’t get any fatter, or the waxy wig on Sister Whoever’s head.

In my sister, I see a younger version of myself: a loner, withdrawn, and constantly conflicted about my body image. I have no idea how to shield her from it. When I went to college she was 4. When I returned home after working as a reporter in another state, she was a preteen. I’m not home enough to counteract the upbringing she’s receiving — one from which I’m still recovering.

I know how much I internalized it when my dad nicknamed me “Pork Chop” as a kid because he thought I was fat. I hated trying on clothes during shopping trips because every outfit was met with the same comments: “That’s too short. That’s too tight.” I remember going through my boy band phase. With grave concern, my mother (who does the talking for everyone) said, “Your father and I are worried that you don’t like black men. Why do you find your own people so unattractive?” Trust me, at 12, I had no idea my love for the Backstreet Boys was a reflection of self-hate.

If I’m present when my mother says something negative to my sister, I try to speak up. “Ma, don’t talk like that around her!” is as far as I can go, or I get a speech about how we should be glad she’s not like her abusive father. It’s clear she doesn’t realize her words can be just as powerful as his fists, and the sting lasts much longer. Sometimes I’ll go to my sister’s room and try to console her. “Don’t pay any attention when they say stuff like that,” I’ll say. “They just talk without thinking sometimes.” But how much good does that do when the next day there’ll be another comment about how she doesn’t think or a barrage of insults regarding the food on her plate?

Wednesday my sister had an awards ceremony at school that my parents didn’t attend. “You didn’t do anything special, so you won’t be getting anything today,” she said they told her. I was infuriated. Surely their lack of attendance was bad enough; did they really have to send her to school with a knock on her confidence?

Shows like “That’s so Raven,” “The Proud Family,” and “True Jackson, VP” that starred black characters are no longer on Disney Channel and Nickelodeon. Katniss Everdeen is white and so is the new, kick-ass Snow White. Even if those closest to her beat her down, I can’t think of many external images my sister can seek to affirm her smarts, beauty, and worth. I can only do it in small doses.

When I think about it, she doesn’t have it so easy after all. And because I don’t want to overstep my boundaries as a daughter, I sometimes feel helpless trying to protect her. There’s only so much I can say to my mother, and at 50 years old, she likely doesn’t think she’s doing anything wrong. Have you ever tried to correct a child in front of her parent? Even when the kid is wrong, Mom takes up for her child and cusses you out. To critique a mother’s parenting would surely unleash greater wrath.

So what would you do? How would you address a parent – your parent – about raising his or her child?

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  • Alexandria B

    Ditto!! A script from the page of my life except my mother is positive, my father is a bit negative and confused about some things; but it is my GRANDMOTHER who is just horrible when it comes to the torture/reward attitude. Its a manulation and control technique to give someone things that you know they will want to satisfy them, or even make them happy. At the same time, you demand (not ask) talk down (not talk too) and critique (not constructive) the same person. It sends a mixed message that is supposed to keep the person confused and still somehow loyal to the person they love but are learning to hate!

    I don’t know what to do about it either. It is DEF helpful to use the Word to talk to people who hide behind “God” in ungodly ways. I do intervene as much as I can when I am in person and talk to my sister often to let me tell me what she is thinking without judgement to let her know that it is okay for her to have a voice. You can let your sister know that it is okay to name these things to herself, to you as her sister, and to God if she prays. She may be feeling that since all the church stuff is being thrown at her, God must be okay with this and its okay; she might think she is the one with the problem. It can be freeing for her to hear you say, “I know that is mommy/daddy and I love them. I know you love them too, but that is NOT okay what she just said.”

    I am reading this book called “Boundaries” by Cloud and Townsend. It is Christian and it is traditional psychology. It is helping me get free(er) abo some of these same issues. And it uses the Bible to say in certain chapters “Parents, you are not being Godly when you damage your kids by speaking down to them or trying to control them.” It is a book I want my whole family to read. It can helpful for you to get further clarity, to your sister to help her restablish her own boundaries as she gets older (because the fear for me is that my sister will get used to this type of attitude and let some bad friend or partner treat her this same way). It can also help your mom, if she is open to it. If she is not, then just tell her that you are reading a Christian book and want her to read it and get her thoughts. Even if she only reads a little bit, the book goes hard from chapter 1.